From Marist Studies
Jump to: navigation, search

15 June 1848 —- Father Pierre Trapenard to Father Jean-Claude Colin, Samoa

Translated by Mary Williamson, April 2017

Based on the document sent, APM OG 031, 13th departure.

Two sheets of paper forming eight written pages.

My Very Reverend Father,
I am profiting from the chance I have been given to let you know the sad position that divine providence has placed us in for the moment. You have no doubt heard of the disasters that have struck the unfortunate mission in Melanesia. As soon as I heard this sad news, I immediately profited from the departure of the warship, the Fortune, to reassure you about the fate that awaits us. [1] I told you in this letter that I would not make any decisions without previously consulting my colleagues who for a long time now have carried out the ministry in these distant lands and without having a more precise idea of how things stand.
It was on 22nd April, the eve of Easter, that we anchored in the harbour of Apia, Samoan Islands. On the very evening of our arrival the Reverend Father Padel, head of that mission and the good Brother Jacques came on board. We were very happy; we were able to hold in our arms some colleagues, some children of Mary. We were able to set foot on the soil that divine providence had entrusted to the care of the Society of the mother of God. It was the first time that I had met these excellent colleagues. We soon established intimate bonds. It does not take long for the children of Mary to form close bonds, since we are all children of the same mother; we have all been nourished with the same milk, fed the same food, drawn from the same source the same ideas and the same principles; the same spirit should animate us all. We should demonstrate the same way of seeing things wherever we go. The children of Mary should find it easy to recognise each other by this one distinctive characteristic which should be common to all, simplicity. Like Mary they should be humble and simple in everything that is to do with her; in their relationships with the world and amongst themselves. Gentleness and goodness, inseparable companions of simplicity, should follow them everywhere, yes, everywhere where the true children of Mary are found they will easily recognise each other. Everywhere in the world, to the farthest reaches of the most distant places on earth, the children of Mary will feel great happiness when they see each other and their joy will be enormous.
The evening of our arrival, the Reverend Father Padel provided everything for the celebration of Easter; everyone was happy to be able to celebrate the beautiful festival of Easter on land; thus there was great haste to make all the preparations; each person did his utmost to contribute to the splendour of the ceremony. The superior of the Lazarists was asked to sing the mass the next day at ten o’clock; the good sisters supplied all their most precious things; they provided their chapel and plenty of polish. At ten o’clock in the morning they came ashore; the captain and a group from the crew presented themselves at the mission. The Reverend Father Padel had decorated his newly constructed church as best he could. All the novices hurried to be present; a crowd of Protestants were standing around the church; they stood at the crossroads, very silent and greatly astonished; the twelve missionaries were all in choir robes, the Brothers had taken soutanes and albs and were acolytes and thurifiers. There was an assistant priest, a deacon and subdeacon and two “chapiers”. [2] The ceremony began with the sprinkling of holy water; that was followed by the procession around the church. Outside, the weather was very beautiful, the setting very spacious; we made the circuit around the church through the tall coconut palms whose leafy crests swayed majestically and announced, through this faithful troupe, the grandeur of a God reborn to a poor, barbarous and ignorant people who did not understand the full beauty and sensitivity of the ceremony. The jubilant singing and the alleluia, blended with the sound of the waves on the shore just a few steps away from us. Everything proceeded in fine order. The Reverend Father Padel was master of ceremonies. The leading catechists were pleased; their natural pride was stimulated by all this. They seemed to be saying to the Protestants that their cult did not have this imposing majesty, that it did not speak to the heart, that it was as cold as the ice of the country where it originated. So they chased them away and did not wish to allow them to be witnesses to this spectacle that was new to them. The royal mass of Du Mont [3] was sung with great gravity. At the moment of the elevation, the French flag was raised to the top of a coconut palm to send a signal to those on board; and while the lamb without stain, the God who died and was resurrected for the saving of men, appeared in silence on the altar amidst a poor faithless people; the ship’s canon fired an eleven gun salute. The natives, far from being surprised by such a noise, seemed proud and happy.
With the mass finished, the good Sisters paid a visit to the Reverend Father Padel in his small hut. The visit was not brilliant, as the hut was very small and lacking in everything; there was not even a glass of water to offer them, as the water supply is far from the site of the mission. Nevertheless, everyone was very impressed to see that the Good Lord was better housed than the missionary. The Sisters were very keen to attend vespers and the welcoming of the holy sacrament which was to take place at three o’clock, but the curiosity of the natives did not allow them to stay ashore very long. A crowd of men, women and children surrounded them and followed them. The captain wished to take then back on board, fearing that someone would insult them; they went as far as to lift their cornets so as to see them better. To get them back on board, one was obliged to protect them from the curiosity of these poor childish adults. Vespers were held at three o’clock and were followed by the benediction of the holy sacrament; it was the first time that vespers had been sung in Samoa and that the Lord of Mercy blessed this land of infidels. So passed this beautiful Easter day, the first festival that we had celebrated in a land of infidels. [p.3]
Our happiness would have been complete, if only the memory of the sad state of our other missions had not come to temper it and teach us that happiness is not perfect here on earth, that in the example of our Divine Saviour we will only achieve supreme bliss after having passed through the crucible of suffering. The time had arrived to take a last resolve, to change all the travel plans that had been drawn up for us in France. All the circumstances had changed. The establishment in New Caledonia had been destroyed. The missionaries had been driven out; the mission completely destroyed. The inhabitants were angry with those whose only wish was to make them happy.

Thus there was no longer the possibility of our going to wait at this mission for the opportunity to get ourselves to San Christobal. San Cristobal was completely abandoned. There was no way of getting directly to Woodlark where Bishop Collomb had installed himself with his staff. Current news was not at all reassuring about this latest position. On the contrary, it was very sad; they informed us that all our colleagues were stricken with the fever, that several were in extremis and that the character of the natives could not be relied on. Since we did not know much about them, the Arche d’Alliance and the corvette Ariane should go to visit them at this time. I thought that if our colleagues were all stricken with the fever and if there was no possibility of them establishing themselves of this island, they would not doubt profit from the presence of one of these two ships to go and establish themselves elsewhere, or to come and rebuild their drained strength in Sydney.
On the other hand, Captain Descars had no fixed contract to take us to our destination and this was impossible for him anyhow considering all the other circumstances. The good Father Ducrettet, who had caused me not a little difficulty in this matter, with his rather fanatical behaviour, was absolutely convinced that the captain should take us to Woodlark. Without any reason he presented lively arguments; he was angry with me because I did not push the captain enough. The captain had replied to him with some blunt reasons which finished by irritating him. My position was very difficult. I could see that all my colleagues were a bit worked up against the captain who refused to take them to their destination; they were not taking into account the balanced advice of everyone else.
So I resolved to remove myself completely from the situation. I left the ship and went to stay with the Reverend Father Padel at the mission. I explained my position to him. We gathered together all three of us, the Reverend Fathers Padel, Muniry [4] and myself. We gave serious consideration to all the circumstances; we thought of all the possibilities; we already knew the intentions of the captain; we re-read all the latest news. Finally we decided that the safest, the most prudent and the most advantageous move would be to remain in Samoa and to try to find a ship to take us directly to Sydney. We decided secondly that the most useful thing to do for the mission was for me to give back all the provisions that I had gathered in Valparaiso on the orders of Father Dubreuil.
While we were deliberating, the captain along with the agent of the Society in Oceania, who resided in Apia, came to find me at the mission to ask me what I intended to do, as time was pressing. I replied to him that my plan was to unload all my possessions and those of the mission that I was responsible for and to await a favourable opportunity to be taken directly back to Sydney. I added that even if he wished to take me to Woodlark (something that was impossible), I begged him not to allow me to do so, as his ship should be going directly to China. I would expose myself to staying alone in an unknown land, exposed to the anger of the cannibals, without any knowledge of the language and without a dwelling, it being understood that it was not certain that my colleagues were still at Woodlark; or to go to China since he was not able to take us back to Sydney. Everyone agreed with this reasoning. Then I asked the agent of the Society of Oceania in Apia, who was present, if he would be able to take the goods that I had bought in Valparaiso for the price of the bill and the freight. He replied that that would be no problem. This business was then finalised at last, I left all the provisions there and relieved myself of a great burden.
I asked these gentlemen if there was any chance of finding a vessel to take us directly to Sydney. Then these same men, realising that I was only asking for very reasonable help, made available to me Bishop Bataillon’s schooner, which had just been bought, but only after it had made the trip to Wallis, as at the moment it was at the disposal of His Lordship. We settled a price, which was two hundred francs per person, to take us to Sydney and sixty francs per barrel for our belongings, but this price is not finally fixed. It had to be submitted to the superiors of the two societies. We signed two bills, one that was given back to me and the other that remained in the office of the society in Apia. So I am sending you an exact copy of this bill. The Reverend Fathers Padel and Muniry and Captain Descars were present. It is The Captain who wrote out one and the Reverend Father Muniry the other. “The new circumstances of the missions in New Caledonia do not allow the Reverend Father Trapenard to board the ship la Stella del Mare as he had expected. First, he was obliged to do as follows: organised between the Reverend Father Trapenard and Mr Chauvel, agent of the Society of Oceania in Apia”.
The Reverend Father Trapenard would take passage aboard the Society’s schooner, the Clara to go to Sydney with the people who were accompanying him. On his arrival in Sydney the Reverend Father Trapenard would pay the captain of the Clara the price of his voyage, sixty francs per barrel of merchandise and two hundred francs per passenger from Apia to Sydney.
It will always be possible for the Superior General of the Marists to discuss with the directors general of the Society, the circumstances where they might judge it suitable to make some modifications to this treaty. The passage demanded of Father Trapenard is only considered as surplus to the route which had already been settled in France. This treaty could never subsequently be considered as standard passage.
We also agreed that the Bishop should be asked to send the schooner back as soon as possible, but it has not yet arrived and I do not yet know when it will arrive. But we must submit ourselves to all the trials that divine providence wishes us to endure. It is true that in the circumstances great patience is required; one must entirely give oneself up and submit to the will of God; we can do nothing in Samoa as we do not know the language; it is not worth attempting such a study, that would have no use for us. On the other hand we are obliged to feed ourselves. Almost all our colleagues in Samoa are reduced to the lowest level of suffering; When we arrived we found the Reverend Father Padel recovering from illness and without any supplies. My heart could hardly bear such a situation; I took the liberty of taking some food supplies from the Melanesian mission to give him relief for the moment. I think that Bishop Collomb would find it permissible for me to act thus in the case of our colleagues. I know that the central mission is not without resources; but it is not from consideration for the mission that I permitted myself to make this small expenditure; but simply for our colleagues, who aroused my pity and brought me to tears.
During my stay in Samoa, I am spending some time studying the character of the inhabitants, their habits, their morals and their customs. I try to gather all possible examples alongside my colleagues. I profited from a favourable occasion to go and spend a few days in Savaliu; [5] I saw the Reverend Father Violette who gave me a lot of information in the very short time I spent with him. He gave me some very precise ideas on the state of the missions in Oceania and on the administration which tests him greatly and which puts all the Fathers in a very sad position. I will try to let you know everything that this good and virtuous missionary has told me, as he has the same way of seeing and thinking about things as all the others, but I must first finish by bringing you up to date with what has happened as far as we are concerned.
When I had finished all my business, the captain said to me that my colleagues in New Caledonia exhausted him with all their pressing demands; that they were asking the impossible of him; that, taking into account all the circumstances and the number of people that he had on board, he was not able to take these colleagues to their destination; that he would do all that he could for them because of the attachment that he had to the Society of Mary; but that he was not able to act against his conscience. He added that as a prudent man he could not, even if he had had no one on board, take these men and their effects, without knowing if their colleagues were already there, as they had no idea of the character of the inhabitants, of their language or of the way of approaching them.
I would comment to you, my Very Reverend Father, that these good colleagues in New Caledonia caused great distress to the Reverend Fathers Padel and Muniry in behaving as they did towards the captain. Believing, no doubt, that they were within their rights, they did not consult anyone; they did not reveal their position to anyone; they kept their distance from those good colleagues who would have been able to give them good advice and prevent them from going to such lengths. Their demands were very definite where the captain was concerned. There were very serious discussions; harsh words were exchanged on both sides; everyone joined in to criticise and to make comments; the Brothers got mixed up in the situation; they took the liberty of making some comments to the captain, which had a very unpleasant effect. A protest of refusal etc. etc. that they asked for, was demanded of the captain; the protest was accepted, at first in somewhat painful and humiliating terms for the colleagues; the captain, before submitting it, had shown it to the Reverend Father Muniry for examination and he had greatly modified it. Finally all the goods were unloaded onto the beach. There was some ill-humour on both sides. At this juncture, the schooner the Leocadie arrived from Tahiti, summoned by the captain especially to take these colleagues to their destination. They did not want to go on it, saying that they were supposed to go on a large ship. In the end everything was arranged for the best; they boarded the schooner and left eight days after the departure of the Stella.
I believe that the Society of Oceania does a great deal for our missions, that without them the position of our colleagues in Samoa would not be untenable, that they treat the Protestants with a certain reserve, that they give credibility and authority to the missionaries where the natives are concerned, that they provide many resources and that they provide the means of servicing those who they help spread themselves out into the islands around the station. In the current circumstances, Captain Descars could not do more for us, as he has put two schooners at our disposal; he has been obliged to make great sacrifices, as navigation is very difficult in these waters; one cannot imagine the obstacles that these seas present; almost always they are obliged to make great detours to avoid banks of reefs, very often with contrary winds. The island of Savai’i is only ten leagues form the island of Upolu, but nevertheless it takes at least fifteen days to make the voyage from one island to the other. On the other hand, these islands offer very little in the way of trading opportunities to defray the enormous expenses that they are forced to make. I believe that before blaming something, or criticising, it is very necessary to understand it, to fully examine the advantages and the disadvantages. However it would perhaps be just as well to be given information that was not too precise about these things; according to what I have heard with my own ears, I think that given time and reflexion all these ideas that are not very fair would resolve themselves.
Yes, my Very Reverend Father, it seems to me that it is very difficult for a superior to be fully informed of the truth from so far away. The men are so miserable, so often victims of their feelings, that with the best intentions and while certainly wishing to speak the truth, they let themselves fall into error and lead others into it too, as they think and speak almost always according the emotions they feel. As long as they are more or less masters of these emotions that stir them, their judgement is more or less fair. A man who is master of the emotions that he feels will make healthier decisions than he who follows the angry impressions that events make on the sensitive area of his soul. If men with vivid imaginations, if sensitive men, judge situations and reach their first immediate impressions, they will speak more or less the truth. It is not rare to see men, who are agreeably impressed by the objects around them, find everything beautiful, enchanting and magnificent, but on the contrary, if the objects which stir the sensitive areas of their soul displease them, they will see nothing but a sombre, sad scene, all shadowy and black, nothing good, nothing that might give hope. Every day one is witness to similar observations about the human spirit. Oh! how man is to be pitied when there is no one but himself to weigh up his judgements and when he is not guided by the light of religion. He believes that he speaks the truth in these circumstances and in wishing to make his thoughts known to others, he only succeeds in leading them astray. Often the fine letters that are written to France, if they were written with more thought and less imagination, would perhaps be less brilliant but more truthful. I would say, my Reverend Father, that the men who write more thoughtfully are afraid of telling the exact truth for fear of wearying your paternal goodwill, of informing your colleagues, of losing all the esteem that one has for them, of ruining their future goals; they are afraid of meddling in things which are not really their business; they prefer to tolerate everything rather than to say too much. Sometimes the superiors let themselves be misled by these men who would like to speak the truth; they think that they are motivated by a certain amount of anger. I do not think that this is the case with the children of Mary, but I am only revealing the thoughts that occupy me in writing to you and in speaking to you about what happened. You know, my Very Reverend Father, that I like frank speaking, that never in my life would I yield the truth to human considerations.
My Very Reverend Father, I ask you as a great blessing, to comment on all the observations that my letters would ask. I do not write them to be read by anyone but you alone. I allow myself a certain liberty, because I know your goodness and your consideration towards your children. I repeat what I had already said to you in Valparaiso to look on all that I write to you as nonexistent, as I greatly mistrust my judgement since I find it constantly at fault.
I promised you to let you know what my colleagues had said to me about the central mission. We have often had discussions about what is happening in Oceania at the moment, the business administration, the position of the missionaries and what they suffer, the lack of care taken to relieve their situation. We have often said that if you knew exactly their fate you would soon come to the aid of these children who are truly suffering and who cannot do all the good they should be able to, if things were better organised. The Reverend Fathers Padel and Muniry have brought me right up to date with everything; but the visit that I paid to the good Father Violette really succeeded in convincing me. It is true that these are not things that are my affair.
I do not know why I am speaking out, since all my colleagues have informed you in detail about everything, but I cannot help but inform you that the state of isolation in which my colleagues find themselves is very dangerous for them and very destructive to the prosperity of the mission, for these colleagues, abandoned thus, in the middle of huge forests, surrounded by barbarous people, a people without any control as far as morals are concerned, are very exposed; they could at any time become victims of shadowy spirits. Mary has always protected them up till now; but we have striking examples of unfortunate missionaries abandoned alone in their missions. Devotion does not help in any way, as one has suffering to a greater or lesser degree each day and one has no one to turn to when one is ten or fifteen leagues from the next person. Sometimes one lets one’s more or less melancholy nature take over; one becomes sad and somewhat reclusive; sometimes one becomes irritable, one complains, one curses his lot, one becomes angry at [p.7] having left for the missions. It takes a heroic nature to be able to endure with calm and resignation this abandoned state.
The second thing which is to be remarked upon is the complete lack of temporal support; a poor missionary is caste onto a foreign island in the midst of savages, without being provided with any means of subsistence. He is expected to establish himself and he is left with nothing, not even the tools necessary to work with. The poor missionary sees that there is too much to do and from the beginning he is overcome with discouragement; there is no one to help him out of this despondency, to encourage him, to stimulate him, to give him a word of encouragement; he has nothing to eat except a few yams; a few armfuls of fabric, that he has been given to buy some taro, are soon gone. He is soon reduced to extreme poverty. Out of ten missionaries only one will have the willpower to overcome all this. He will begin, by his goodwill, to attract a few natives who will provide him with just enough to prevent him from dying of hunger.
Thus the condition of the four missionaries in the Samoan Islands was pitiful when we arrived. From this way of organising things the missions suffer greatly. I have seen one of our Fathers who was so incensed by this way of operating that he complained to everyone of his destitution. I think that it will be impossible for this good colleague to remain any longer in this curacy. He does nothing and is in such a state of discouragement that I cannot describe it to you; I stayed for a long time with him; I went to spend fifteen days with him in the circumstances, but his position is no longer tenable. He got so worked up, that he is no longer rational about this subject. The missions in Samoa offer some hope, but time and patience is needed.
I think that some colleagues have been too flattering about it. Things are not as marvellous as has been said. Father Dubreuil would have done well to listen to reason rather than his imagination when he described the state of the missions to you; it seems to me that this good Father would do well to go and spend some time at the noviciate to learn to understand the human heart by studying his own somewhat more, so as to handle the sensitivity of others better when they depart.
My colleagues have brought to my notice that it would be greatly desirable, in the interests of the Society and of the missions, if all the missionaries would carry out their noviciate according to the rules and that they not be allowed to leave until they have been well tested. It is necessary for the same attitude to exist everywhere, that everywhere the same rules are observed and that these rules are upheld with vigour, as it is very painful to see these gentlemen who have not done the preliminary training or who have just skimmed through it, meddling with wanting to make changes or wanting everything to yield to their way of seeing things. Most of the time the children of Mary have to submit not to their beloved rules but to the whims, the ideas of a colleague who knows little of the Society and who thinks he knows everything, understands everything, who thinks himself the intimate friend of his superiors and that these superiors have devolved all their authority to him, that the rules are nothing to such as him.
Oh! my Very Reverend Father, do not send to the missions these men who do not know how to question themselves, who are full of their own ideas, who never know how to consult with others, who want theology to bend to their way of seeing things, who believe, because they have the title of missionary apostolic that they can do as they like without observing the rules of the canons and there are many things that cause hurt when they are corrected. It is not necessary to have a doctorate to be a missionary, but one needs sound judgement, a good knowledge of theology and the ability to question oneself. I think also that we should not hold too much to Missionary mechanics, as their ideas seem a bit too material. They busy themselves too much with material things, and not enough with the spiritual. The missionary should put his obligations ahead of everything. He should be occupied with the piety he has been trained in, which is the spiritual aspect and he who only occupies himself with these things will be in every way and everywhere a true missionary while the other will only be a working mechanic who does not imagine that the savages cannot make this distinction, and he will be greatly mistaken. I have myself been witness to this. I have seen a mission which had at its head a holy missionary, a man who only occupies himself with spiritual matters, who is salutary in every way, who gives himself in every way to everyone to win them for Jesus, who seeks to insinuate himself into their hearts by any means possible, who becomes savage with the savages, who relates to all their infirmities, who supports them in all their misfortunes. [6] Oh well! that mission is going very well; that Father is well loved and greatly esteemed. He advances the Lord’s work much more, in behaving in this way, than if he occupied himself in a host of exterior activities. The missionary receives blessings for carrying out his ministry in a worthy manner, but not for doing other things. I know that Saint Paul did manual work,[7] but let people copy Saint Paul in every way and everything will go well. St Paul said it was always necessary to work sapere ad sobrietatem.[8]

Finally, my Very Reverend Father, I do not know why I still inform you of a host of useless things, which are good for nothing. I write you a long letter full of trifles. I see in finishing it, that I would have been able to omit a multitude of things that I have said, but I know that it is to a father that I am writing. I let my pen run on. I beg you once again to forgive me for boring you with such a long letter. Always look upon me, my Very Reverend Father, as the least of your children. Do not forget me in your heartfelt prayers.
Your very humble son in Jesus Christ,
Missionary priest.
Samoan islands or the Navigators 15th June 1848.


  1. Letter not stored at APM>
  2. Perhaps read: chaplains.
  3. No doubt a composition of Henry de Thier, called Du Mont (1610-1664).
  4. Jean-Marie Padel and Joseph Mugniéry
  5. perhaps read: Salelavalu; but Violette was then at Lealatele (cf. doc. 696, address).
  6. Cf. 1 Co 9.22: To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. Indeed, I have become everything in turn to men of every sort, so that in one way or another I may save some.
  7. St Paul was a tent-maker. See Acts 18:2-3, 1Cor 4:12 and 2Thess 3:8
  8. C.f. Rom 12:3 Dico enim per gratiam quæ data est mihi, omnibus qui sunt inter vos, non plus sapere quam oportet sapere, sed sapere ad sobrietatem : et unicuique sicut Deus divisit mensuram fidei. (For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith.)

Previous Letter List of 1848 Letters Next letter